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New and Booming: The LeConte Center

New municipal event and conference centers typically open to great fanfare in small towns. Bands play, mayors speak, townspeople tour, and then, after the grandest of openings, the centers get quiet. It can take years to build a following, and some centers never succeed in bringing significant convention business to town.

Not so in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, where 18 months ago, the 232,000-square-foot LeConte Event Center opened. A consultant predicted the city-owned center and its 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall would attract 15 events in its first year. Instead, it had 25 events, and for 2015, it has 30 events booked.

“To get to that point that quick was pretty impressive,” Phil Campbell, facility manager, said. It is especially impressive when you consider that most large events book sites three or more years in advance.

A number of factors worked in the LeConte center’s favor, according to Campbell, who has always lived in the area and has 35 years of experience in hospitality management. “The opening of the center happened in a perfect storm: The economy came back, gas prices came down — one positive after another piled on to culminate in a great situation.”

But the city also made some moves that other municipalities might not have been willing to make.

For one, the center, in essence, signed a no-compete clause with area hotels.

“The city commission passed a city ordinance that we cannot license any event that could be accommodated in any existing facility,” said Campbell. “That keeps us from doing local events like the 800-person wedding reception, and that is really smart because it keeps us focused [on larger events that bring in people from out of town]. It is a different approach. There may be some city somewhere doing this, but I don’t know of it.”

The LeConte center’s biggest event to date was the National Quartet Convention, which brought in 40,000 people over seven days last September.

The city also designed the center to accommodate a plethora of events. Event and meeting space is on one floor, so there are no stairs or escalators. Its 1,600-space parking lot is not only free but has its own tram service to shuttle people from its far reaches. Inside the center, extra money was spent on structural support so the exhibit hall could be column free, making it a big, flexible box that has handled events as wide-ranging as basketball competitions and faith-based youth assemblies to trade and car shows. “All of our power drops are from ducts in the ceiling, so it is clean solid floor,” Campbell said.

And the facility isn’t operating as a lone wolf. Pigeon Forge is about halfway between Sevierville and Gatlinburg, about seven miles from each. Each of those cities has its own meeting facility. The LeConte center has already worked with Sevierville to accommodate a hosted trade show for retailers who buy merchandise for gift shops. The show had 670 booths between the two facilities. Campbell sees other possibilities for working with Gatlinburg and Sevierville, especially with large sports competitions.

From a meetings standpoint, the Smokies region continues to be a seasonal destination. In the summer months, the 13,000 hotel rooms in Pigeon Forge are packed with vacationing families, so there are no rooms for meetings. The LeConte center uses the time to do maintenance. Its business model allows it to run with a staff of seven full-time employees. During busy times, it boosts its staff with contract labor. “In that two-month space of summer, you don’t have to carry that extra labor,” Campbell said.

Ultimately, the numbers verify the LeConte center’s success. For January and February this year, Pigeon Forge’s hotel tax revenues were up 37 percent and 21 percent, respectively. Some 90 percent of its bookings are multiyear; some events have committed through 2025. One, a faith-based conference, penned its commitment to meet at the center in a particularly memorable manner.

“This group wrote in its contract that it wanted the rights to its dates from now until the return of Jesus Christ,” said Campbell.